A Review: Pt. I P.C. Wren The Beau Geste Trilogy
June 23, 2009
A Contribution To The Erbzine Library Project
The Beau Ideal Trilogy Of
Beau Geste, Beau Sabreur, Beau Ideal
Review by R.E. Prindle
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Review of Beau Geste
Part III: Review Of Beau Sabreur
Part IV: Review Of Beau Ideal
For hundreds of years after the expulsion of the Moors from Spain the Moslems raided the European c0asts of the Mediterranean abducting men, women and children as slaves while also preying on shipping. The newly formed United States sought unsuccessfully to suppress this Moslem piracy. ‘Millions for defense but not one penny for tribute.’ If you remember that one from school.
Finally in 1830 France invaded, conquered and occupied what is now known as Algeria ending the Barbary Pirates.
An army corps was formed and named the Legion Etrangere in French, French Foreign Legion in English to pacify Algeria. Over the next hundred years the Legion was used for peaceful penetration into the Sahara and Sahel to form the French West African Empire.
In an astonishing turn around the Moslem power evaporated while the French easily became the masters of the bulge of Africa. The military superiority was to last until post-WWII when exhausted by two world wars accompanied by a moral collapse as the best and brightest died on the battlefields leaving nothing but singers and dancers to live off the fat of the land. The French were militarily capable but morally bankrupt. The Moslems reasserted themselves in the fifties forcing the French out of Algeria while beginning the invasion of France by peaceful penetration. A neat reversal of fortunes. Thus the conquest of Europe interrupted by the Spanish expulsion began again.
Immediately after the French invasion of Algeria the deserts of Africa beame a playground of Europeans. The lure of the desert held a strange appeal for them. Perahaps devoid of romance in their homelands the desert with its now no longer dangerous but exotic inhabitants replaced the fairies and elves displaced by the scientific revolution. The Euroamerican romance with ‘noble savages’ and ‘inferior races’ may very well be caused by the void created by the scientific revolution. Euroamericans hoped to find or create those emotional or psychological needs lost in the advance of civilization. This may explain to some extent the White worship of people of color whose ‘natural’ uninhibited behavior they profess to admire and imitate. Witness the tatooing and body piercing in imitation of the Africans who themselves appear to have to given it up.
The French having conquered Algeria had to establish an army corps dedicated to perpetual warfare. That unit was the Legion Etrangere or French Foreign Legion. The duty in the Sahara amid an enemy population was so execrable that only men without hope, that is criminals and outcasts with no other options need have applied.
In 1831 then, a year after the conquest and annexation of Algeria as an actual Department of France the French Foreign Legion was created by Louis Philippe the new Bourgeois King of France.
The Legend of the Legion apparently grew very quickly. the first legion novel is thought to be that of the English writer Ouida. She published her novel Under Two Flags in the 1860s. It was a great success ultimately being made into a movie. Alongside the Legion novels were a number of novels that dealt with the desert in a very romantic way.
The genre of novel could only have developed after the French conquest of Algeria after 1830 and a little later with the pacification of the Moslems. If not pacification at least intimidation. Astonishingly the centuries intervening between Roman Africa and the conquest of Algeria vanished from the consciousness of Europeans. In only a hundred years (well, a hundred twenty-five years) a brief interlude, Europeans were in turn expelled from North Africa with their tremendous superiority shattered and in ruins. That brief century now appears like a fairy story without real substance. A hundred years of struggle and dieing ant then- poof! But the stories were great.
Fans of Jules Verne have a very good story- The Barsac Mission- that undoubteldy was an influence of P.C. Wren. The work has only been translated recently issued in two volumes as Into The Niger Bend and The City Of The Sahara by Americor. Some consider the novel science fiction.
The publishers are escapist types who have retreated to Mattituck N.Y. at the most extreme end of Long Island. Unfortunately, as with many of Verne’s books the Barsac has been bowlderized to reflect current Liberal tastes. The translator I.O. Evans coyly expresses it this way: I have also taken the liberty, found necessary by most of Verne’s other translators, of abbreviating or omitting a few passage of minor interest. (cough, cough)
Another wonderful Sahara novel written at the same time as the Barsac is Robert Hichens’ The Garden Of Allah. Hichens was an influence on Burroughs. The novel was very well known at least through my youth. I knew people with whom Hichens’ reputation was very great although I imagine there are few who would recognize his name today.
And then ERB himself devoted a number of pages to the romance of the desert. In The Return Of Tarzan it will be remembered that Tarzan was despatched to Algeria as a French secret agent just along the lines of Wren’s De Beaujolais. The Lad And The Lion is of course a complete Sahara novel that appears to have had an influence on Wren. Korak the Killer of The Son Of Tarzan operated on the margins of the desert while the Sahara plays a frequent part in a lot of the Tarzan novels.
There is no question that E.M. Hull’s The Sheik was a major influence on Wren as he actually parodies Mrs. Hull’s novel virutally by name.
With Wren the myth of the Sahara and the Legion comes into full bloom.
If one has read only Beau Geste one has read an amazingly good story but to understand Wren’s intent it is necessary to read Beau Geste, Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal in sequence. By the time Wren wrote, the handwriting was on the wall. The Western will had already been sapped. The beau ideals that had inspired Western men since the days of the Arthurian epics was fading from the Western consciousness being replaced by the effete homosexual ‘ideals’ of today. The strength and confidence that allowed Western man to subjugate the world was becoming just a memory. Wren in his way is either commemorating the ideals or seeking to reverse the decline.
The three novels are concerned with the fortunes of two families, one English, the other American. Wren has a wonderful feel for the difference between the English and the American characters, not to mention the French. His command of American dialect and hobo slang is virtually alone worth reading the trilogy.
The first volume, Beau Geste based on Wilkie Collins The Moonstone (a so-so read) concerns the early history of the Geste brothers, Beau, Digby and John and the story of Fort Zinderneuf away out there almost beyond a hobo’s imagination.
The novel does introduce the two American hoboes, Hank and Buddy, serving in the Legion. Wren kills off Michael and Digby Geste in this first novel putting the load on John.
In the second novel of the trilogy, Beau Sabreur (The good sword or swordsman) John returns to Africa to try to locate Hank and Buddy who were lost in the drifting sands after saving his life.
In this manner Wren introduces the American family of which Hank is a member. Hank and his friend Buddy were the two men lost in the desert that John Geste is seeking. Both men lying in the desert near death in different locations were rescued by the Bedouins. As luck would have it Hank managed to work his way up to Sheik acquiring Buddy as his vizier. They introduce superior Western discipline and tactics into their tribe giving them dominance in the desert. Hank then comes to the attention of the French as the new Mahdi. De Beaujolais is sent to coopt the new Mahdi. Through a series of adventures De Beaujolais meets and falls in love with Hank’s sister Mary who is traveling with her other brother Otis Vanbrugh. They as well as Hank are fleeing from a brutish father.
At stories end the whole cast Henri De Beaujolais who had wed Mary, Otis, Hank, Buddy, John Geste and his wife Isobel, who plays a large part, are back at the ranch in Texas facing the old brute of a father down while trying to free Hank’s other sister from thralldom to the old brute so she can marry Buddy and begin a life of her own. Hold on, now, Wren must have been studying Burroughs because he’s got a number of twists up his sleeve, or perhaps, tricks.
While Otis was in Algeria an Arab dancing girl had fallen in love with him who was apparently the queen of the desert. Otis tried to escape her but in exchange for help in recovering John from the penal battalion of the FFL he promised to marry her. Aw shucks, that’s right, you guessed it. Nakhla was in reality his sister. The old brute had fathered her on another dancing girl when he was out making deals in the desert. So we have Nakhla, the same name as the heroine of Burroughs’ The Lad And The Lion, pretty much following the plot line of The Girl From Farris’s. So maybe Wren should also be included in the Farmerian Wold Newton Universe.
So that is the broad overview of the story line that holds the three volumes together. Before I go on to the individula reviews there is one other problem I wrestle with that I would like to to discuss and that is the
Western fascination with primitive life styles.
For a convenient starting point we’ll use H. Rider Haggard, no, cancel that. I’ll go back a little further to the French Wold Newton. I’m reading the Paul Feval Black Coats series and they have some earlier antecedents. Balzac, Dumas, Eugene Sue and Feval all deal with organized crime groups. A Dumas title that I haven’t been able to get is titled The Mohicans Of Paris while Feval makes several reference to crime organizations adopting a sort of ‘red indian’ mentality. What Dumas called Mohicans evolved into the Apaches of late nineteenth century Paris. Anyone who watched TV in the fifties is familiar with French Apache dancing.
Thus while the French were becoming fascinated with the North American Indians and their primitive mentality Haggard was celebrating the primitive African mentality. And then along comes Ouida, Verne, Hichens, Burroughs, Hull and Wren celebrating the ‘free and wild’ life of the desert.
As of the beginning of the nineteenth century, if not before, the Euroamericans evolved into the Scientific Consciousness leaving the rest of the world behind in the mythopoeic or Religious Consciousness. However the transition from one consciousness to the other is not a clean break. Haggard, for instance, never really made the transition while Burroughs did. That may be why Burroughs reads as modern if a trifle old fashioned while Haggard is purely of an anterior psychology- good but just a little stodgy.
Thus, as the White Man spread over the globe, the, what I shall I call it, White Man’s Burden, White Man’s novel appeared. A whole genre of either stated or implied White superiority appeared of which Haggard and Burroughs are the most promient. From these writers the genre went on to the Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle stuff to imitative White Jungle god stories. Conrad sang the colonial era in lyric tones. Kipling told of the Raj of India while inventing the White Man’s Burden which was very real.
Ouida is usually credited with the first FFL novel, Under Two Flags, while Burroughs contributed The Return of Tarzan in which Tarzan goes to Algeria as a French secret agent although not as FFL.
In 1924 P.C. Wren wrought the glamor of the French Foreign Legion with the first novel of his trilogy, Beau Geste, followed by Beau Sabreur and Beau Ideal. These novels are also scientific demonstrating the superiority of Euroamerican intelligence over the mythopoeic mentality of the desert tribes. Merely by introducing European military discipline into the tribe Hank and Buddy enable the tribe to defeat all others and dominate the desert. This while Abd El Krim and the Riff dominated Western news instilling admiration for the primitive desert tribes over Western Civilization. I had a tearcher in high school who would get sexually aroused just talking about El Krim.
Thus while the transition from mythopoeic and scientific thinking was not complete if even half evolved the West was presented with various mythopoeic cultures that drew them back from the transition to the Scientific Consciousness. At present, then, the West has a split personality in which they admire the Negro and Arab mentality so much that they denigrate their own scientific side. It doesn’t seem likely that Euroamericans in sufficient numbers will make the transition to Scientific Consciousness quickly enough to preserve Western civilization hence the present bizarre worship of primitive races in North America and Europe. On the other hand the rest of the world seeks to imitate the West in matters that they cannot understand or sustain on their own. If the West is in trouble imagine the actual psychological state of things in China and India.
Now it is time to move on the first of the reviews- Beau Geste.